Banners Above the Sand

The Free Syria Flag
The first installment of a series on the fluttering colors of the Arab Spring

The convulsions of the Arab Spring, and the persistent atmosphere of woe and chaos, continue without abatement across the Middle East. It has brought with it copious attention from the media and the cavalcade of analysts that are trotted out to bring their interpretation of events to the public at large. Despite this attention, it seems as though the earnest desire for complexity and nuance has obscured some simple but profound avenues of investigation. Much has been made of the words and deeds of the rebels and the states they strive against, and rightly so. But little attention has been paid to the symbols they use. It is a profound mistake, as the banners of the revolutions can tell as much about the revolutionary narrative as anything else.

            Throughout the Arab Spring we have seen a tumult of protestors in the streets, in the Middle East and in the West. The flags that these arbiters of political change have flown have varied greatly both in design and in symbolism.  Rebel movements throughout history have crafted their own banners. To many causes, such fluttering colors have done their part to represent themselves to the world and to inspire their movement onward. It has been a common trend among the rebels and protestors not to adopt new colors but to revert to a previous flag used in their country, as is the case in Syria. Instead of crafting a new banner whereby these revolutionaries might rally under new symbols evoking their cause, the Free Syria movement has instead reverted to the flag of the Republic of Syria from 1932. The green, white and black horizontal striped flag bears three red stars, representing the three districts that originally composed the newly formed republic, Aleppo, Damascus and Dei res Zor. As the first flag of an independent Syria, this flag first saw partial autonomy under the French and then full independence following the Second World War. This banner represents a truly indeprendent Syria under a republican government, which in itself speaks volumes to what these people desire.

Flag of the Syrian Republic
            In 1958, this flag was abandoned when Syria joined the United Arab Republic in favor of the red, white, and black stripes with the two green stars representing the two states of the United Arab Republic. Being the design of the flag that Egypt declared independence under in 1952, it has become known as the Arab Liberation flag, and thus has major political significance in the Arab World. This flag would fly for only three years when the collapse of this hasty union resulted in a split of Egypt and Syria. Syria returned briefly to it's republican colors, though with the Ba'athist coup in 1963, various versions of the Arab Liberation flag were reused. For the next twenty years Syria would go through a myriad of sweeping political changes, moving from one union to the next, and being torn apart by internal strife and political disunity. 
Flag of the UAR 1958-1961 and later the Syrian Arab Republic 1980-Present
With the downfall of the United Arab Republic, the only people to take up this fallen banner were the Ba’athists. As the bold representation of pan-Arab strength, the colors and symbols of this banner were used in many variants over the years, and continue to be flown today by the Syrian Government. Although the United Arab Republic collapsed, its flag was officially readopted as the flag of Syria in 1980.

             Instead of evoking pride and a common national identity with her flag, Syria’s colors today only harken to the distant echoes of a failed state and grasp at a quixotic quest for a pan-Arab union.  Indeed it is important for Syria to display the quintessential pan-Arab colors, but this flag brings with it connotations of failures and atrocities. Thus after thirty years of flying this flag, to the people of Syria this flag embodies Ba’athist control over their country and the last bastion of Ba’athist doctrine, the Assad regime.  Syria’s current flag is thus stained with the record of the recent past.

The old flag that is now being flown by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army is to them the true Syrian flag, untarnished by recent history.By standing by the flag of the Syrian Republic, the Free Syria movement stands for a Syria run by the original foundations under which it was first established. Indeed the Syrian Republic of 1930-1958 was not perfect. It was equally wrought by coups, conflict and strife, but in recognizing the flag of the old republic they reject the symbols of the Ba'athists in favor of what they might feel was the last legitimate flag in Syria.  In using this flag they speak volumes as to what they wish to do and what a Free Syrian government in power might portend. Though it is a far cry from actually predicting future policy, their choice of flag paints a vivid portrait of their distant goals. This movement wants to get back to the vision of Syria from which the current government has strayed so very far. In rejecting the alienating and stained colors in favor of the republican flag, the Free Syria movement has chosen a flag that fittingly represents the people and land of Syria, their heritage and truly distances themselves from the regime they wish to end.  It is a proper flag under which Syria may reunite.